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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The structure of a meal

"Is halo-halo a dessert?"

I get asked that every so often. For the uninitiated, halo-halo ("mix-mix) is a Filipino dish consisting of a variety of sweetened items (fruit, beans, flan, halaya - the variations are endless and dependent on the region and season), piled together with crushed or shaved ice and doused with milk. The diner is expected to mix it up into a melange while attempting to sample all the different bits. It's a snow cone on steroids. It's been presented as a dessert on Top Chef. But, really, it is substantial enough to stand for a small meal in some respects. Then again, there's a whole array of dishes - kakanin - which aren't meant to be eaten during the big meals of the day, but are rather pamatid gutom ("bridges across hunger").

I think the concept of the Western meal and meal components is at times too restricting. The convention of three meals, with the requisite sub-meal breakdown of courses, is as more ritual than natural, and yet much of the vocabulary in discussing food forces us to classify things to fall into these categories, even though it's a false requirement. Much of the world does not eat in these monolithic patterns, where a large hunk of protein serves as a central focus. The Chinese dimsum is a leisurely series of small plates, dining in Malaysian kopitiams, even the drinking focused Spanish tapas and Filipino pulutan extend dining to less formalized affairs.

The concept of eating more frequently in smaller quantities results in more modulated blood sugar levels, and thus, obviate the "starvation" response come meal times. Some debate points to these spikes in insulin/glucagon as one of the key elements in the obesity epidemic. But, really, what enforces these patterns are cultural in nature; meals are mostly points of social interaction more than individual sustenance. While much of focus of the angst of the anti-industrial food complex has been the nature and source of food for Americans, they don't pay as much notice to the social mores that enable these dining habits.

Take the idea of the individually plated meal. Turns out that people don't so much eat to satiety but rather eat to finish a portion. There's an excellent experiment in this when someone is given a bowl that slowly refills itself with soup, the person eating it is unaware how much food they have actually consumed. Family-style "shared" plates encourage people to choose only a portion which they can finish, rather than trying to finish what is put in front of them. Moreover, it's a source of social interaction - the family-style sharing of food is a central focus of social acceptance in many Asian cultures. When I bring someone to an authentic Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant who then orders something, and "hoards" it as if eating a hamburger rather than sharing it with the rest of table, this usually results in a bit of uneasiness. Likewise, a Chinese person will offer a half eaten sandwich during a work lunch to anyone who isn't eating yet - resulting in some uneasiness in the opposite direction.

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